BE THE CHAMP! - How to win UPY
'Lopresti used photographic skill to transform the surroundings into beautiful background'
And rest! The last month, as I write, has been a blur for me. The Underwater Photographer of the Year (UPY) competition is highly enjoyable and rewarding but boy, does it take up a lot of time!
Rather like an iceberg, the bit everyone sees – the judging, the prize- giving at LIDS and the media coverage – belies the massive amount that goes on out of sight, which is essential to allowing this small part to poke out into view.
UPY is a team effort and I am hugely grateful to the sponsors and friends who donate so much to make it happen.
Once again, the results that were revealed first in last month’s DIVER have now circulated the world. The winning photographers have been lauded in more than 100 major media outlets (that I know of) ranging from the Guardian in the UK to CNN in the States.
Underwater Photographer of the Year Davide Lopresti, who joined us in London for the awards ceremony, returned to Italy and spent the week doing interviews for national TV, radio and newspapers. His happy advice is “be prepared for your profile to expand exponentially, if you enter next year!”
The question I am asked most often by photographers is: “How can I win?” Sadly there is no secret formula for that, but I wanted to use this month’s column to discuss how Lopresti did it.
Not the competition result specifically, but the techniques behind his image Gold (see below).
THE OVERALL WINNER from UPY is spectacular for many reasons. First, a golden seahorse is a compelling subject. Such a subject would look good isolated on a simple black background, but as IKEA will tell you, the complementary colours of yellow and blue are even more eye-catching.
All portraits rely on good eye contact with the subject. It allows the viewer to connect with the individual in the image. Yet anyone who has photographed a seahorse will know that eye contact is one of the hardest things to achieve.
Seahorses are generally shy creatures and will turn away from any disturbance. A photographer needs to dive accurately and respectfully for this reward.
Although you will see photos of seahorses swimming in the water column (occasionally naturally, more commonly lifted up by insensitive photographers) they prefer to live in the tangle of vegetation on the seabed.
The reason that those bad photographers are tempted to lift them is that their benthic habitat is rarely a photogenic background.
What is particularly impressive in Lopresti’s photo is that he has left the seahorse where he found it and used photographic skill to transform the surroundings into beautiful background.
Lopresti has used a long exposure to capture the ambient colour of the seabed. However, during this long exposure he has also panned the camera to blur the relatively unattractive details of the weeds on the seabed into a much more pleasing texture.
He has then used strobe light to freeze and reveal the details of the seahorse. This is not straightforward, because normally a strobe would light the entire frame and therefore freeze all the details in the seabed and overpower the blue colour. So he has used a strobe fitted with an optical snoot to focus the strobe light only on the seahorse.
GENERATING THIS TYPE of blur requires a long exposure and panning the camera. I aim for a shutter speed between 1/15th to ¼, which is long enough to create blur, yet short enough to be precisely controllable.
Lopresti used 1/8th, bang in the middle of this range.
I prefer to shoot these photos with front curtain flash synch, so that the flash goes at the start of the exposure. This ensures that the main subject is frozen exactly where I intend it to be in the composition.
The trick is to then pan ahead of the subject in the direction it is facing, so that any subject blur goes backwards.
Smooth panning is important, but the technique is reasonably forgiving, when the exposure is reasonably short and controllable and because the burst of flash will keep the subject sharp.
It usually takes a few adjustments to get things right, so in a situation such as Lopresti’s with a shy subject, I would get things dialled in away from the seahorse and then move in to produce the shot.
RATHER LIKE RIDING A BIKE, the first time you try shooting with a snoot the whole idea seems ludicrously impossible.
But the good news is that it becomes a lot easier with a bit of practice, and once you have the knack snoots are pretty user-friendly. The challenge is twofold: getting the spotlight on the subject and the subject in focus.
My favourite type is the optical snoot, which has a lens inside to concentrate and focus the light into a beam.
The best known is Retra’s LSD, which stands for Light Shaping Device and is what Lopresti used here. These are valuable because they produce a much more powerful spotlight, and the long tube makes them easier to aim.
You can also shine the strobe’s focus light through the same optics as a guide for aiming.
The easiest way to aim a snoot is from directly above the port, so that we only have to worry about moving it in one direction, forwards and backwards.
I always start snoot dives by looking for a boring stone about the same size as my intended subjects, to set up my lighting. I switch over to manual focus, frame up the stone and focus on it. I won’t plan to refocus during the dive unless I absolutely have to.
Now I will aim the strobe so that the light comes down, lighting the stone but not the seabed behind.
Once I have this set up, I will tighten my strobe-arm clamps and the system is locked and loaded. I now know that anything in focus will be in the spotlight.
To win, Lopresti combined these two creative techniques with a compelling subject and a strong graphic composition, both in terms of colours and textures. That’s as close to a formula for success as I have.
I am excited thinking about the ideas that photographers will come up with over the next 12 months.
Creating blur requires a long exposure. However, we still want a correct exposure. So we have to close our aperture and/or lower our ISO to compensate for the lengthened exposure. This is why it is easier to achieve long exposures in darker conditions.
Smooth panning takes a few attempts, so practise on non-moving subjects before taking on more flighty species.
It is particularly valuable in macro photography for transforming an unattractive seabed into a pleasing blur.
Practice also makes perfect with snoots. It is much easier to practise on common slow-moving subjects, until you are more used to the technique.
Use stiff strobe-arms, not bendy Loc-line-style arms, which will keep moving forcing you to re-aim the strobe.